A Complete Introduction to the SAT


The SAT is an exam run by the College Board and taken by students everywhere for U.S. college admissions. It is used to assess student competence and college readiness in critical reading, writing, and math. It is offered 7 times a year and takes 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete (not including breaks and proctoring). It is usually administered on the first Saturday, at 8:00 AM of each month it is offered (except January).

Students typically take the test during their junior year of high school and may retake it senior year. To sign up and check test dates, go to the College Board website. When you sign up, you will be able to choose a local testing center to show up to on test day.

The best way to familiarize yourself with the SAT exam itself is to look through a practice exam.


The format of the test goes like this:

  1. Writing – Essay (25 minutes)
  2. Math (25 minutes)
  3. Reading (25 minutes)
  4. Math (25 minutes)
  5. Writing – Grammar (25 minutes)
  6. Reading (25 minutes)
  7. Math (20 minutes)
  8. Reading (20 minutes)
  9. Writing (10 minutes)

The essay is always first and the 10-minute writing section is always last, but the sections in the middle are ordered differently from version to version to prevent cheating.

Although there are 9 sections that count (listed above), the College Board will throw in one 25-minute experimental section to test out new questions on students, making the test a total of 10 sections. The experimental section looks like any other section and consists of either reading, writing, or math. Although it doesn’t count, you will not know which section it is and trying to figure it out is not worth the risk. It’s best not to think about it and just treat every section as if it counted. After all, everyone gets an experimental section.


Each section is scored from 200 to 800 points, 800 being a perfect score. So the best score possible on the exam as a whole is 2400. Now you might be wondering what a great score is. Here’s a general guideline in the context of college admissions:

Ivy League: 2250+ (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford,…)
Top Tier: 2000+ (UCLA, Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, Carnegie Mellon, USC, Tufts, UNC, Duke)
Second Tier: 1800+ (Penn State, BU, UT Austin, Fordham, UMaryland, GWU)
Third Tier: 1800- (Hofstra, DePaul, lesser state universities)
Fourth Tier: 1600-

The national average in 2012 was ~1500. And the national averages for each section:

Reading: 496
Math: 514
Writing: 488

So how is the scaled score from 200-800 calculated? First, your must calculate your raw score.

Here are the total question counts for each section:

Math – 54
Reading – 67
Writing – 49

You are penalized .25 points for each question that you answer wrong (none if you leave it blank). So for each section,

Your Raw Score = Total Question Count – .25 \(\times\) #You Got Wrong

So let’s say that on across all the math sections, you got 6 wrong,

Your Raw Score = 54 – .25\(\times\)6 = 46.5 = 47 (you round up)

Now with your raw score of 47, you would look that up on a scaled chart (The College Board determines this for each exam) like those found here and see what your scaled score would be. Or you could just use this handy SAT calculator instead and forget about calculating raw scores. In this case, a raw score of 47 would equate to a score of ~680 (give or take depending on the exam).

What’s tested?

So we know that the test covers reading, math, and writing, but what’s in each of those sections?
Here’s a concise breakdown:


  • Sentence completions – fill in the blank with the appropriate vocabulary word
  • Reading comprehension – read a passage and answer questions about it (main idea, tone, inferences, …)


  • Arithmetic (percent, proportion, decimals, fractions, sequences & series, integer properties, sets)
  • Algebra (functions, exponents, equations, lines, graphs, absolute value, direct and inverse variation, word problems, simplifying algebraic expressions)
  • Geometry (pythagorean theorem, area & perimeter, volume, parallel & perpendicular lines, slope, similarity, transformations, coordinate geometry, circle properties, triangle properties)
  • Data Analysis (interpreting graphs, mean, median, mode, probability)


  • Essay (a persuasive essay in response to a general prompt like “Do people need to compare themselves with others in order to appreciate what they have?”)
  • Grammar (improving sentences, improving paragraphs, grammar error identification)

Again, the best way to familiarize yourself with the SAT is to look through a practice exam.

How to Improve

Don’t ever think that the SAT is a test that cannot be studied for. The truth is that preparing for the test helps a lot, just like any test you might study for in school. Thousands of students every year read through test prep books and attend classes to improve by as much as 300-400 points, depending on the quality of the curriculum.

There are many options you have to prep yourself, and there is no one “best way.” Many have found success with a test prep course or private tutor. Others prefer to self study with various books and review practice questions.

Despite the various paths you can take, there ARE common denominators among students who improve greatly:

  • They take lots of practice tests.
  • They review those practice tests, figuring out what they got wrong.
  • They practice with real questions.

Consider the list above as MUST-DOs. For resources with REAL SAT questions, go here.

And no matter how you plan on improving, I highly recommend you take advantage of the resources on this blog. The posts here have proven to be invaluable in helping students improve on the test. Best of luck.